Friday, June 20, 2014

Looking #Throughglass, Part 2 of 3: Steel Against Flint, Sparking Expectation

In my last post, I discussed the practicalities of Google Glass, and explained the temporal dissonance -- or "pre-nostalgia" I experienced while using them, and I left off questioning my own position regarding the potential cultural shift that Glass gestures toward. This post picks up on that discussion, moving toward the idea of the internet of things. If you haven't read it yet, it will definitely give this post some context ... and be sure to read the disclaimer!

I don’t think that Google was going for immediate, wide-scale adoption resulting in a sudden, tectonic paradigm shift with Google Glass.  I think if it had gone that way, Google would have been thrilled. Instead, I think there’s something much more subtle (and smart) going on.

While Apple is very good at throwing a technological artifact out there, marketing it well, and making its adoption a trend in the present, Google seems to be out to change how we imagine the future at its inception point. Glass potentially alters our expectations of how evoke the technological systems we use, eventually causing an expectation of ubiquity -- even for those who don't have it. I've noticed that Google rolls out technological systems and applications that are useful and work well, but also makes one think, “wow, now that I could do this, this would be even better if I could integrate it with that.” And, at least in my experience, soon after (if not immediately), there’s an app available that  fulfills that need, albeit tentatively at first. And when that app maker really nails it, Google acquires them and integrates the app into their systems. For the Google-phobic, it is quite Borg-like.

And while resistance may be futile, it also sparks inspiration and imagination. It is the engine of innovation. I think that Glass wasn't so much a game-changer in itself, as it was the steel against the flint of our everyday technological experiences. This was the first in a large-scale expeditionary force to map out the topography for the internet of things. In an internet of things, objects themselves are literally woven into the technological spectrum via RFID-like technology of varying complexity. I've written about it in this post, and there’s also a more recent article here.  By giving a Glass this kind of “soft opening” that wasn't quite public but wasn't quite geared to hard-core developers, it 1) allowed for even more innovation as people used Glass in ways engineers and developers couldn't see; but, more importantly, 2) it makes even non-users aware of a potential future where this system of use is indeed possible and, perhaps, desirable. It is a potential future in which a relatively non-intrusive interface “evokes” or “brings out” an already present, ubiquitous, technological field that permeates the topology of everyday life. This field is like another band of non-visible light on the spectrum; like infrared or ultraviolet. It can’t be seen with the naked eye, but the right kind of lens will bring it out, and make visible that extra layer that is present.

Google had been working on this with its “Google Goggles” app, which allowed the user to snap a picture with a smartphone, at which point Google would analyze the image and overlay relevant information on the screen. However, potentially with Glass, the act of “projecting” or “overlaying” this information would be smooth enough, fast enough, and intuitive enough to make it seem as if the information is somehow emanating from the area itself. 

Now this is very important. In the current iteration of Glass, one must actively touch the control pad on the side of the right temple of the frames. Alternately, one can tilt one’s head backward to a certain degree and Glass activates. However, either gesture is an evocative one. The user actively brings forth information. Despite the clunky interface, there is never a sense of “projection onto” the world. It is definitely more a bringing forth. As previously stated, most of Glass’s functions are engaged via a voice interface. I think that this is where the main flaw of Glass is, but more on that in part three. 

But, in a more abstract sense, all of Glass’s functionality has an overall feel that one is tapping into an already-present technological field or spectrum that exists invisibly around us. There’s no longer a sense that one is accessing information from “the cloud,” and projecting or imposing that information onto the world. Instead, Glass potentially us to see that the cloud actually permeates the physical world around us. The WiFi or 4G networks no longer are conduits to information, but the information itself which seems to be everywhere. 

This is an important step in advancing the wide scale cultural acceptance of the internet of things.  Imagine iterations of this technology embedded in almost every object around us. It would be invisible -- an “easter egg” of technological being and control that could only be uncovered with the right interface. Culturally speaking, we have already become accustomed to such technologies with our cell phones. Without wires, contact was still available. And when texting, sending pictures, emails, etc became part of the cell/smartphone experience, the most important marker had been reached: the availability of data, of our information, at any moment, from almost anywhere. This is a very posthuman state. Think about what happens when the “no service” icon pops up on a cell phone; not from the intellectual side, but emotionally. What feelings arise when there is no service? A vague unease perhaps? Or, alternatively, a feeling of freedom? Either way, this affective response is a characteristic of a posthuman modality. There is a certain expectation of a technological presence and/or connection. 

Also at play is Bluetooth and home networking WiFi technology, where devices seem to become “aware of each other” and can “connect” wirelessly -- augmenting the functionality of both devices, and usually allowing the user to be more productive. Once a TV, DVR, Cable/Satellite receiver, or gaming console is connected to a home WiFi network, the feeling becomes even more augmented. Various objects have a technological “presence” that can be detected by other devices. The devices communicate and integrate. Our homes are already mini-nodes of the internet of things. 

Slowly, methodically, technologies are introduced which condition us to expect the objects around us to be “aware” of our presence. As this technology evolves, the sphere of locality will grow smaller and more specific. Consumers will be reminded by their networked refrigerator that they are running low on milk as they walk through the dairy aisle in a supermarket.  20 years ago, this very concept would seem beyond belief. But now, it is within reach. And furthermore, we are becoming conditioned to expect it.

Next up: explorations of connection, integration, and control, and -- in my opinion -- Glass's biggest weakness (hint, it has nothing to do with battery life or how goofy it looks). Go check out the final installment: "Risk, Doubt, and Technic Fields"